How Food Stamps Work and How to Get Them

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, is a government-run program that helps low-income people buy groceries.

This important federal benefit can make a huge difference for a family during periods of financial uncertainty and distress. Here’s everything you need to know about obtaining and using food stamps to stretch your budget.

What are Food Stamps?

Food stamps are SNAP benefits provided to approved recipients to purchase groceries.

Unlike other forms of financial aid that can be spent on anything, SNAP benefits can only be used for food from a grocery store. If it goes in your refrigerator, freezer, or pantry, you can probably buy it using food stamps. However, if you try to swipe your SNAP debit card to purchase any of the following items, it will be declined:

  • Non-food items like soap, toothpaste, and pet food
  • Alcohol
  • Vitamins and supplements
  • Hot foods
  • Fast food  

Overall, food stamps are specifically provided for staples like eggs, cheese, milk, bread, cereal, produce, meats, and bottled water.

Being Eligible For Food Stamps

The SNAP program is a federally funded program, so all recipients must be approved through a careful application process.

You’re most likely to be approved for food stamps if you are unemployed, homeless, on other forms of public assistance, disabled, elderly, or working for low wages. Your application will ask questions about your income, expenses, age, and citizenship status to determine your eligibility and total SNAP benefits per month.

In general, your income must fall under a certain threshold to qualify for food stamps. The threshold changes periodically, but in 2019 households can’t have more than $2,250 in cash resources (like a bank account) or make more than 130% of the poverty level in gross income. this means that a household of five can’t make more than $3,269 in gross income to qualify for food stamps. A family of two, meanwhile, can’t make more than $1,832 in gross income to qualify. These terms are in effect until September 30, 2020.

Applying for and Using Food Stamps

In order to apply for SNAP benefits, begin by finding the online application for your state. Each state runs its own food stamps program, so it’s important to apply through your local SNAP office.

After you enter all of your household information, including members of your household, income, and resources, you’ll receive a notice of your eligibility. If you’re eligible, you need to complete an interview within 30 days and give any proof of income required by the SNAP agency. As long as your interview goes well, you can be approved to receive SNAP benefits within seven days.

You’ll receive an EBT debit card that is automatically loaded each month with your monthly benefits. The maximum monthly amount your family receives is based on the number of people in your household and your total income. The most that a family of four can receive is $646, while the most a family of six can receive is $921 per month.

You can use your SNAP benefits for a certain period, usually up to a year. As your certification period comes to a close, you’ll receive a notice to renew your SNAP benefits by providing updated proof of income or employment. If your income has increased above the set threshold, your SNAP benefits may be canceled.

If you need additional support or your family is still in need, you can explore other federal benefit programs:

  • WIC: a short-term nutritional program for new mothers and young children
  • National School Lunch and Breakfast Program: provides free or reduced-priced meals to students on school days and during the summer
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program: provides monthly food for low-income senior citizens 

When in doubt, visit your local Department of Social Services to learn more about the support systems available to your family.

Read more on how to Legally Get Cash Back for Groceries on the SNAP Program

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